Local Art Display to Showcase Value of New Therapeutic Model

June 21, 2023
Eleni Zohdi works with one of the Edinburg Center residents on an art project. Courtesy photo from the Edinburg Center

There’s a large painting on the wall of the Edinburg Center at 205 Burlington Rd. in Bedford. Titled “The Way to Freedom,” it depicts a series of overlapping handprints on an ascending road.

Eleni Zohdi, the Lowell artist and fashion designer who conceived of the painting while serving as a volunteer mentor at the center, said the piece represents the artists’ drive “to perform to the best of their ability. ‘The Way to Freedom’ means they are freeing their abilities. Some had never painted anything before, and I saw this sparkle of happiness in their eyes that captivated me.”

Edinburg, which serves area residents with mental health conditions, intellectual and developmental disabilities, co-occurring disorders, autism, and brain injuries, will showcase an array of artists’ self-portraits at “Faces Gallery,” open to the public from 3 to 6 p.m. on Thursday, June 22.

“Faces Gallery” will express each artist’s personal vision. Organizers said the exhibition represents efforts to “help people with intellectual disabilities express their hopes and dreams through self-portraits.” 

Edinburg Center opened in 1977, based on the tenet that “all persons have the potential to learn, the capacity for change, and the right to live a meaningful life in the community of their own choosing.”

For the past five years, the agency has been based in a repurposed high-technology building on Route 62 between the Route 3 interchange and Middlesex Turnpike.

“We want people to know we are here and about the resources we have,” said Lynn Bishop, executive vice president. “We are really open to building connections with the community.”

The Edinburg Center will showcase an array of artists’ self-portraits at “Faces Gallery,” open to the public from 3 to 6 p.m. on Thursday, June 22. Courtesy photo from the Edinburg Center

The artworks are part of the center’s program called Meaningful Whole Life, described as “where specially-trained clinicians called champions meet one-on-one with people to find out what they’re most passionate about and what they’d like to accomplish in life. Then, they work together to make those dreams come true.”

The approach was developed by staff during the months in 2020 and 2021 when the Covid-19 pandemic shut down day programs for people with disabilities, without the intellectual and emotional connections they needed.

Bedford High School graduate Chris Starnes, one of the Whole Life champions, said there are more than 80 individuals served by the program. Some of them travel to the center from one of the many group homes Edinburg oversees between Waltham and the Merrimack Valley, including several in Bedford.

During a session on Thursday, the artists and their counselors were at work creating their self-portraits and investing in a variety of other projects, such as a large canvas that when finished will be titled “No More Covid.”  Centered on the canvas is a globe, to be surrounded by flags of the world and other drawings.

The art group, which meets up weekly in Bedford, has traveled to the deCordova Sculpture Park in Lincoln for inspiration, Starnes reported.

It’s not just art that is manifested through Whole Life. Individualized care plans are developed with people identified as important. Starnes said the staff conducts inventories on interest with those being served, family members, and related agencies.

One woman wanted to model bridal fashions and another had the chance to sing the national anthem at a Worcester Red Sox game. An older man said he is thrilled to be working part-time at Panera in Burlington.

There also are group experiences with yoga, fishing, karaoke, movies, spiritual experiences such as a drum circle, and volunteer activity with the Bedford Food Bank, the Bedford Free Public Library, Council on Aging, and the Bedford Day parade.

“The biggest thing is a community gathering and sharing common interests, where they can thrive,” said Starnes, who joined the Edinburg staff in 2021. He said he is “an advocate for people we serve to improve residential life.” 

During the Covid-19 downturn, Starnes and others decided to augment traditional day programs with a personalized, action-oriented approach that encourages people to get out into their communities. “We asked, ‘Why do we need to go with the model,’” he recounted.  His colleague Laurie Harrington said that the model is more structured and less individualized.

The results are self-evident, he testified. “We work with people with lots of behavioral needs, and we use the power of the smile. It’s infectious. You can tell the difference it’s making.”

Zohdi said her son is autistic and resides in a group home. She first got involved with Edinburg by donating some of her work for a fundraising auction. Every student contributed to “The Way to Freedom,” from priming to background to donning gloves and adding their handprints.

Edinburg developed its Meaningful Whole Life program using funding from state programs and private donations.

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